When you’re starting out in the entertainment industry (or perhaps navigating a dry spell), you may just find yourself doing a few odd jobs here and there. Something to bridge the gaps and pay the bills.
Nothing illegal, of course.
Then again, this is Hollywood we’re talking about.
Don’t do anything illegal, people!
PA, or Production Assistant – one of the most common first jobs in the business – is almost entirely composed of odd jobs. But it can get subdivided into even odder specifics.
Some friends of mine spent a summer being “Parking PA’s.” That gig is primarily about keeping streets clear overnight so that production vehicles have space to park the next day.
I believe one of the highlights for them was watching over character Billy Batts‘ shallow grave for Goodfellas.
That right there goes to show you that odd jobs can create lifelong memories. And a fine collection of good stories.
Here are a few of mine…
Looking for work early in my industry tenure, I got a short term gig on a behind-the-scenes shoot for Propaganda Films.
I don’t really remember how it came about, but I think I temporarily filled in for a PA and mostly worked at the Propaganda offices. Mostly.
One day I got to be at the rehearsal stage in the middle of Hollywood somewhere.
Which is when Michael Jackson walked through the lobby with a couple members of Another Bad Creation.
The video was Black or White and Jackson was kind of at the height of his career, so it was a pretty cool moment. At the time, anyway. Definitely lost some of that sheen since.
One of the things that video is famous for is the morphing faces at the end, which was something no one had really seen used so effectively before.
Which is a prefect segue to yet another kind of “Morphin….”
Rangers, Mighty Morphin Power
At one point while at NYU, I filled in on sound for a student film. Not because it was something I was interested in, but because so few students seemed to want the gig in general. But it still had to get done.
This led to other student directors hearing about it and asking me to do audio for their projects. Thankfully, not too many.
Anyway, I guess this ended up being a skill set I sort of reluctantly backed into.
Cut to years later and I’m looking for work. A friend of a friend was doing audio for the Power Rangers – Lightspeed Rescue edition – and needed a boom operator to fill in for a day.
Before I could come to my senses, I was in a parking structure in downtown Los Angeles. Sort of near where the locals serve Jury Duty (also reluctantly).
Anyway, it was stressful as I hadn’t done it professionally before and a boom mic in the shot was not a good thing to let happen. After a few set-ups, though, it didn’t even matter anymore.
The production realized they didn’t need sync sound for the action scenes they were doing, so I was sent home. Still, I got paid for a full day with both time-and-a-half and double time because it was a weekend.
And I got to be a (very) a small part of an iconic franchise. Win win.
Speaking of icons, while working at Wolfcrest Entertainment, we got subcontracted to write an interactive digital biography of B.B. King.
In addition to lots of research, we were flown to Las Vegas to see B.B. in concert, and then interview him in his trailer afterwards.
It was an amazing experience, especially when he referred to me as a “rebel.” I had long hair at the time, so I suppose it was pretty obvious that convention wasn’t for me. B.B. got it.
Ultimately, the company we were working with lost the gig and On the Road with B.B. Kingwas finished without us. Nevertheless, the audio from our talk was used in the final product, including some laughing from we interviewers.
Connected with a blues guitar legend for all of eternity? Check.
The Rock Bottom Remainders were a garage band made up primarily of authors. An amateur supergroup that would perform at certain book-related functions with proceeds going to charities. Members included Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and Matt Groening.
A made-for-video documentary of the band was conceived and produced, and I was right in the thick of it.
Returning yet again to my dubious audio skills, I ended up recording most of the interviews, in addition to possibly pushing the dolly during the concert taping.
My credit reads, “Video / Audio Engineer,” which seems like a very generous description of my contribution.
Actually, working on interviews might just be my odd job forte…
Rock and Roll Tape
My very first job after college was working at the syndicated series, Night Flight. One of the Segment Producers there was particularly interested in music and managed to arrange a few interviews with touring bands when they were in town.
No one ever tells you, but the most important part of blogging is a bulletproof filing system.
In the end, even the most unusual jobs can still lead to a paycheck, network connection, or your own grab bag of memories. So keep your mind open and ear to the ground and one day you too can share your tales with the world.
Actually, why wait? Ever have any interesting or bizarre industry jobs? Dry cleaning, perhaps? Babysitting? Body disposal?
This isn’t a post about the hilarious (but painfully accurate) sitcom, Episodes.
You should check that out, though, if you haven’t. Highly recommended for anyone in general, but even more so for writers.
No, this post is about the sometimes difficult task of coming up with stories when writing for a series. A difficult task we all very much want to be saddled with. When you get an opportunity to write a freelance episode, you jump at it.
Obviously, you start by doing your homework. You watch episodes of the show if they’re already available. If not, the story editor will likely provide you with the show bible and a few completed scripts.
Additionally, you might get a list of loglines for all episodes that have been produced or are in the process of being written. This is to give you an idea of what the stories for the show are like, and – more importantly – identify which ones are already “taken.”
Once you’re up to speed, it’s time for your imagination to get to work.
First and foremost, the series concept and characters are what’ll drive your inspiration. Make sure you dive into that world and explore. Ideas will likely just pop into your head. Some great, some less great, and more than a few half-baked. That’s what we call an excellent start.
But what if you draw a blank for some reason? Or the show has already done all the stories that leapt to mind?
Your life and the life of the people around you is where a lot of stories come from. They’re identifiable, they’re real, and they’re dramatic.
If you’re working on a series about super spies saving the world, your life experiences might not end up generating your “A” stories. But they can still provide a nice subplot that’s emotional and gives even a super spy relatable struggles.
Sometimes, just seeing book cover art and reading titles on spines can provide a source of inspiration for something brand new.
It’s also a reminder of iconic storylines and paradigms that can be modified to almost any setting or character. Myths, legends, and fables. All ripe for the picking.
Who knows, maybe even a biblical story could be adapted into an Emmy-winning Ted Lasso episode.
Rip From the Headlines
Hard to type the following words these days, but the news can actually be your friend. On television, on websites, even printed on paper, are example after example of dramatic real-life stories. Life and death. Love and hate. A rich tableau.
Shows like Law and Order even go out of their way to promote the episodes inspired by current events.
An extension of this same type of leaping off point is the documentary category on every streaming service. Some facts are just begging to become fictionalized.
Put Some Lipstick on That Pig
Let’s not forget the classics. Storylines that come up again and again in popular culture.
For me, there are some concepts that I’m naturally drawn to. Favorite themes. Tropes, I suppose.
Archrivals teaming up to battle a common enemy. Or its flipside of two friends becoming temporary enemies. A character searching for something before realizing they had it the whole time.
The trick here is to take these classics and come at them from a new angle or with a new twist, specific to the series and characters.
If you reach the point where you have someone on two separate dates at the same time, or a parent trying to surreptitiously replace their kid’s deceased pet, you might want to go back to the drawing board.
Or just make it your own.
Typically, you might pitch three or four story ideas at a time. Of those, you’ll probably only get one or two approved.
Don’t abandon your rejects.
While you’ll likely be most focused on writing out the approved episodes, take a minute and “bank” your rejected storylines.
You worked hard on those pitches. Make sure you add them to a separate and ongoing “story library” document. That way, when you’re trying to come up with new stories on subsequent series, you’ll have a deep well to draw from.
Granted, you’re not likely to be able to use your rejected magical princesses stories for your preschool talking trucks series. But you might be able to use your rejected talking truck series ideas for a subsequent talking car series. Or maybe a talking bicycle series.
Every year, the entertainment industry goes through several prolonged Awards Seasons.
With film, it’s usually the end of the year for the releases themselves, while the campaigns carry over into the next one.
That covers a slew of ceremonies, including the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice, PGA, and of course, the Oscars.
Television is also included in the Golden Globes, but is more specifically associated with the Emmys. Beyond those are even more subdivisions of guilds, genres, and even mediums.
So how does someone go about getting one of these shiny trophies?
Unfortunately, just making a great movie or show won’t do it. Therefore, studios and production companies need to reach out and bribe voters.
The truth is there are so many movies and series out there – possibly more than ever – that it’s a huge chore to make an audience aware your project even exists. That’s a big first hurdle to overcome before they can even begin to evaluate its merits.
For quite awhile, if you were eligible to vote for one of these bits of media, you received envelopes of theatrical screening schedules, along with a glorious influx of silver gold.
For months, your mailbox would fill with a near endless supply of DVD screeners vying for your consideration. If you were eligible to vote for more than one of these awards, you’d even get your share of duplicates.
These days, DVDs are phasing out as more screeners have migrated to online digital versions.
Regardless of the platform, these screeners are always pushed out side-by-side with email promotions, magazine ads, and commercials designed to entice potential voters to watch (or just remember and vote out of familiarity).
Some studios – most noticeably the deep-pocketed Amazon – go even further, sending their screeners in tiny pink suitcases to promote the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, accompanied by crayons and microwave popcorn for Uncle Frank, or bundled into some sort of USB wireless hotspot for… well, I don’t know.
I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do with that thing.
All of that, and I’m not even in the Television or Film Academy. The most they can get out of me is a WGA or SAG-AFTRA award.
That being said, every nomination, and especially every win, goes a long way toward marketing and promoting those films.
This is a business, after all, and that’s how the award sausage is made.
In a crazy coincidence, I’m looking to my super-intelligent and good-looking blog readers for a little consideration myself.
For Your Consideration (Seriously)
The Mike Wieringo Comic Book Industry Awards – more commonly known as The Ringo Awards – recently opened up to nominations for work released in the 2021 calendar year. Both pros and fans alike are eligible to vote (that means us).
So, if you’ve ever enjoyed anything I wrote here (or hated it all, but would like to be fashionably ironic), please consider clicking over and writing in my indie graphic novel, Blowback, and all the creatives that made it happen (voting ends June 30th).
Here’s a handy dandy guide with the specifics. Feel free to cut-and-paste…
BEST WRITER James Hereth & Rhonda Smiley – Blowback BEST ARTIST Kev Hopgood – Blowback BEST INKER Kev Hopgood – Blowback BEST LETTERER Kev Hopgood – Blowback BEST COLORIST Charlie Kirchoff – Blowback BEST COVER ARTIST Kev Hopgood – Blowback BEST ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVEL Blowback FAVORITE HERO Sgt. Davis – Blowback FAVORITE VILLAIN Captain Martell – Blowback FAVORITE NEW TALENT James Hereth & Rhonda Smiley
True, you can be overwhelmed with joy. That’s a good thing. But just plain overwhelm? That’s a drag.
Life can be a lot for most of us.
There’s the day job. Trips to the grocery store. Laundry, housekeeping, bills. Add in an aspiration to create (while also writing a blog about it), and it can just be too much sometimes.
So what do you do?
Take a Mental Step Back
Straight up stop what you’re doing for a beat. A big sigh is good. Some deep breathing. Filling your lungs with air and exhaling completely
I find repeatedly telling myself “Don’t panic” can help (seriously). “We’ll get there,” is another mumbled mantra. Just like writing a script, one page at a time, and you eventually end up where you’re heading.
Give Bob Ross some of your time. He’s not with us any longer, but he can still help. Click on any of the 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting and feel some of that tension float away like a happy little cloud.
You can also try nature sounds like babbling brooks. Maybe videos of puppies. Do some digging around on YouTube and find your own personal go-to blood-pressure-reducer.
Evaluate the Causes
Are you taking on too much?
Is everything on your plate equally important, or can you prioritize?
Maybe you can tackle some projects in the summer, or even next year.
Be Your Own Marie Kondo
Are you working on things that no longer bring joy? Just having all these projects stacked up in your metaphorical inbox can steadily crush you over time. Maybe you can drop some.
You should definitely drop some.
Gently put them on the shelf until you’re interested again. Create an archive folder on your computer where they can comfortably hibernate while you gradually forget about them.
Wait until some future inspiration gives those ideas fresh life and then pluck them out of the mothballs and put ’em back in the rotation.
Give Yourself a Break
A downside of being a creative means constantly having homework. But nobody can do it all, all the time.
That kind of drain can paralyze and depress.
Give yourself a pass every once in a while. In fact, pass on things more often.
We’re only human (or reasonable facsimiles). Saying no to projects or favors or just making time for yourself to do absolutely nothing doesn’t make you less of an artist. But it can make you less stressed.
Oh, the rejuvenating joy of a nap on the couch.
Overwhelm is bad, but underwhelm isn’t so hot either. In the end, it’s all about finding some sort of balance.
Remember, being creative is important. But mental health is more important.
We’ve reached the end of the year. The first full pandemic year, as a matter of fact. And if you’re reading this, you’ve probably survived. Congratulations to us all.
In addition to a flurry of holidays (and occasionally some holiday flurries), this season serves as a milestone for most of us. A moment of reflection.
When I was younger I used to look forward to all the annual retrospectives that would come out in the winter. Newspapers, magazines, Life‘s Year in Pictures.
It was cool to flashback to the previous twelve months, and be reminded of how many significant moments there were.
For a writer, or any creative, I find this a good time to produce your own annual retrospective.
What kind of goals did you set for yourself last year, and how well did you meet them?
In the corporate world, this might be considered a self-evaluation. Well, check out your bad self.
It’s easy to get ambitious about all the things you want to achieve. The ever-growing list of dream projects.
I get this same feeling a lot of times at night before I go to bed. I’m preposterously ambitious and anxious to get started on a million or so projects the next day.
It’s not especially reasonable. I suspect my subconscious knows there’s no time to start any of these things as I climb under the covers, so it’s safe to conjure delusions of grandeur for the morning.
The point to evaluating the past year isn’t to beat yourself up for any shortcomings, but to shape what you’re going to try to do moving forward. Reflect back as a guideline. And then set realisticgoals for the future based on what you’ve learned.
To quote a script of mine, “dream the possible.”
What are you actually capable of? Not in the perfect circumstances, but in the very messy real world where we all live.
That’s not to say you should let yourself off too easy (“I think I can get a solid paragraph done in 2022 if I really buckle down”). But at the same time, don’t overreach to the point where you’re always defeated and disappointed in yourself.
I think I’ve always had a problem with looking ahead.
On the surface, “looking ahead” sounds like a good thing, an ambitious thing. But it can actually be quite problematic.
The problem being that when you spend all your time looking ahead, you’re not quite being where you are. Not being in the here and now.
What does this have to do with writing you may wonder? Plenty, I respond (why are we talking like this?).
It’s no secret that getting writing work is difficult. So if you are fortunate enough to get some, don’t let yourself get completely consumed by the notes and deadlines.
Find the time to mentally step back and relish the moment. Be tickled. Be thrilled. Be proud.
Years ago, while on a series abroad, I had a lot of responsibilities. We were far away from home, working a six day week for six months straight, and that stress weighed on me. I think we did a great job and produced a great show. But it’s hard to say I enjoyed it.
Obviously, these things are easier said than done, but looking back now, I don’t think I spent enough (any?) time feeling excitement or satisfaction. That was a mistake.
In these situations, it’s critical to appreciate exactly where you are, not where you want to be next. It doesn’t make you lazy, or unambitious, or stagnant. It’s just essential to your soul to embrace the experience as it happens.
In the entertainment business, a lot of things that seem promising don’t actually come together. Potential work doesn’t materialize, doesn’t get bought, or doesn’t get produced.
Which is why you can’t wait until the cameras start rolling on a project before you get thrilled about it.
If you advance in a writing competition, feel the validation. If you get optioned, celebrate the victory. You never know if you’ll get to experience something like that again.
The buzzword you hear a lot these days is Mindfulness. Being Mindful. Mindful meditation.
According to mindful.org, Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
This applies to life, relationships, and of course, work.
As we roll into the official month of thanks, don’t miss out on fully experiencing your own life and appreciating where you are. Wherever you are. Always remind yourself to be mindful, thoughtful, and grateful.
Entertainment comes in so many forms. Today, more than ever (though I think they might’ve finally phased out wax cylinders and 8 tracks).
So, while I understand that it’s important for writers to create a brand for themselves, I think it’s also important to branch out occasionally.
I speak from experience. A wide array.
Although I’d made short films in high school and took a sketch comedy class in college, I graduated with the intention of becoming a feature film writer.
But despite my growing pile of specs, one of my first opportunities to write professionally was on a syndicated detective show called High Tide. Was I going to turn my nose up at an hour-long run time?
Hell no, I wasn’t. I was thrilled.
If you get an offer to do something outside your brand, don’t reject it out of hand. That thing may end up being what you like writing the most.
Or not. But you should flex those creative muscles anyway. Take some chances. Especially if someone is going to pay you to do it.
The interesting thing about working in broadcast television is crafting drama to peak at a commercial break. It’s a challenge to shape your story to build to a cliffhanger strong enough to make viewers stick around to see what happens next.
It was a shorter duration, obviously. And needed to be geared for a younger audience. The most unexpected obstacle, though, was writing for real animals that are only able to perform very specific actions.
We learned very early in production that any sequence where we wrote that Baloo dramatically charged onto the scene was not going to work. The bear did not “charge” anywhere. Lumber, stroll, sit, sure. All day long. But charge? Not so much.
So, once we knew what we were working with, we got busy writing stories that would work.
Most aspiring screenwriters are very familiar with the feature paradigm, and probably have several specs sitting in their computers. They’re raring to go when this kind of opportunity comes along.
Extreme Team was a television movie, so the classic three act structure gets modified to accommodate those dramatic breaks for commercials.
HALF HOUR KIDS ANIMATION
With animated half hours, you don’t need to worry about the limitations of real life bears, but that doesn’t quite mean anything goes. There’s only so many backgrounds, guest characters, and vehicles in a show’s budget. Someone gets paid to design and draw every one of those things, so dollars and schedule dictate just how much you can dream up.
Rhonda Smiley and I have reached the end of seasons on shows and have been asked to write episodes that take place in settings, or used characters, that had originally been generated for previous episodes.
Recycling is good for the planet, as well as the studio.
Learn to create great stories despite these kinds of restrictions, and you may become a go-to hire for show runners and production companies alike.
HALF OF HALF HOUR ANIMATION
One type of animated half hour consists of two different 11 minute segments (a broadcast half hour is typically 22 minutes of content).
This structure is frequently targeted toward younger viewers or preschoolers, which can come with the challenge of E/I rules. These are requirements to educate or inform. E/I series are staffed with an educational consultant to make sure writers are properly weaving age-appropriate lessons in their stories.
Entertaining and educating? A noble format indeed.
BITS AND BYTES
During my run on Kuu Kuu Harajuku, I was asked if I wanted to also write bonus streaming content for the show. That translated to creating stories that were a mere 3 to 4 minutes long. You can’t even finish microwaving a Stouffer’s Mac and Cheese in that kind of time!
With the Kuu Kuu Close-Up, the assignment was to essentially write a monologue. This would keep new animation to a minimum, while providing action by cutting in existing moments from the show.
In the other duration direction, you have mini-series, limited series, and lest we forget, the classic open-ended television series. Unique writing challenges there include things like character arcs over the course of an episode, season, and even an entire series run.
So don’t let yourself get stuck in just one kind of storytelling. Flex those creative muscles and take on new things, unfamiliar things, different things.
Despite their differences, all these formats still require a compelling narrative with a beginning, middle and end. If you can imagine and convey a good story, then it shouldn’t matter how long it is, or how big a screen it will reach an audience on.
Entertain. Enlighten. Move.
Keep your options open. You never know where opportunities may arise!